by Stephen Scobie
Previously in this series
- It takes some getting used to. Rough and Rowdy Ways Part 1
- Rough and Rowdy Ways part 2: false prophets and my version
- Part 3: “Made my mind up; Goodbye Jimmy; Mother…”
“Crossing the Rubicon”
I crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day Of the most dangerous month of the year
What would Julius Caesar do? Well, one answer is that he would lead his army across the River Rubicon, thus precipitating Civil War in Rome. So this action has become emblematic of a decisive and irrevocable act, a calculated risk, a breaking of taboos. In Caesar’s case, it worked – but there are no guarantees for prospective crossers.
Why the 14th day of an unnamed month? The best known historical reference for that date would be July 14th: the storming of the Bastille, the beginning of the French Revolution, an ideal example of Rubicon crossing. And July is, of course, the month named in honour of Julius Caesar – who actually crossed the river in January. But there is also September 14th, 1901, date of the assassination of William McKinley: see below, the opening lines of “Key West.”
I painted my wagon, abandoned all hope.
“Paint your wagon” is a colloquial phrase for getting things ready to be done, deciding to act – not quite as drastic as crossing the Rubicon, but getting there. Also the title of a 1969 movie musical starring, incongruously, Clint Eastwood. And remember the “painted wagon” in “Senor” (1978).
“Abandoned all hope” comes from Dante’s Inferno: it is the inscription above the Gate of Hell. Translations vary between “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” and “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
Well, the Rubicon is a red river
But it’s not the only one. There is a Red River in Dylan’s home state of Minnesota. There is a great 1948 western movie called Red River, whose plot has several echoes in RRW. In 1997, Dylan recorded a wonderful song called “Girl from the Red River shore.”
I can feel the bones beneath my skin
It’s a bit of a stretch, but I cannot resist the echo from T.S. Eliot, “Whispers of Immortality,” “Webster was much possessed with death / And saw the skull beneath the skin.”
And here again are the threats of violence –
I’ll make your wife a widow You’ll never see old age…. I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife
And yet here too, in the midst of these threats, we come to the most explicitly redemptive lines on the whole album:
I feel the Holy Spirit inside See the light that freedom gives I believe it’s in the reach of Every man who lives
— punctuated by an almost off-microphone “O Lord!”
Mona, baby, are you still in my mind?
Are we all the way back to 1966, “Memphis Blues Again,” “Mona tried to tell me / To stay away from the train line”? Or is it Lisa again?
“Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”
Key West is, Dylan’s song tells us, “on the horizon line.” It’s as far as you can go in one direction of America: the limit, the end. But like a horizon, it recedes: it is always just beyond reach. It is posited as an ideal, never quite attainable, but possibly imaginable in one particular place: Key West.
Historically, Key West has long been seen as a refuge, for pirates (such as one 18th century predator named Black Caesar!), or for writers, from Ernest Hemingway to Wallace Stevens. (There is no doubt a whole article to be written on the links between Dylan’s song and Stevens’ poem “The Idea of Order at Key West,” but I’m sorry, I don’t feel up to attempting that one.) The New Basement Tapes, the 2014 collection of songs based on texts written by Dylan in 1967 but left unfinished, contains one track entitled “Florida Key,” which also evokes the idea of an ideal destination.
But before we even get started, and despite the dreamy music in the background, there is a violent interruption:
McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled, Doctor said McKinley, death is on the wall
The first two lines of Dylan’s song are the same as the first two lines of “White House Blues,” a 1926 song by Bill Monroe, lamenting the death of William McKinley, 25th President of the United States, who was assassinated in Buffalo, NY, on September 14th, 1901. (See “Crossing the Rubicon” for another 14th.) I am not aware of any special connection between McKinley and Key West He appears here mainly as a signpost towards that huge song looming just ahead, “Murder Most Foul,” where his memory will hang in the background list of the four assassinated Presidents: Lincoln, Garfield. McKinley, Kennedy. Still, it is an odd way to begin a song about an idyllic ideal. As if, before the “idea of order” has even been established, it has to be brought violently back down to earth, Later in the song, there will be another violent interruption.
Down in the boondocks
See “Murder Most Foul.”
I’m looking for love, for inspiration On that pirate radio station Coming out of Luxembourg and Budapest
Key West always welcomed pirates, such as Black Caesar. The term “pirate radio station” dates from Britain in the 1950s, when Radio Luxembourg operated outside the tight constraints of BBC regulation. Many a British teenager lay awake at night listening to Radio Luxembourg beneath the pillows. Later, the most famous pirate station was Radio Caroline, operating from a ship in the North Sea, forever patrolling just outside British territorial waters. I am not familiar with the history of pirate radio in Hungary, Maybe it’s just that Budapest rhymes with Key West.
Down in the flatlands
Not quite “Lowlands,” but almost.
Key West is the place to be If you’re looking for immortality… If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there
At the expense of a somewhat clumsy rhyme, this is the song’s most direct statement of the ideal waiting on, or beyond, the horizon line.
Like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac
Allen, Gregory, Jack. A triumvirate of the Beat Generation. In 1954, Ginsberg recorded a song playing variations on “When the Saints Go Marchin’ in.” It’s called “Walking at Night in Key West.”
Like Louis and Jimmy and Buddy and all the rest
Take your pick. I guess Armstrong, Reed, and Holly, but the possibilities are endless.
Got my right hand high, with the thumb down
Again, justice as violence. Thumb down is now generally accepted as a sentence of death. (There is a memorable thumbs down in Spartacus.) It was not ever thus. In Roman times, and right up until just a couple of hundred years ago, it was the other way round. Thumbs down asked the victorious gladiator to plunge his sword or spear into the ground, sparing the defeated opponent. Thumbs up signalled that the death blow should come higher, into the heart or neck.
Down on the bottom
The New Basement Tapes also contains a song called “Down on the Bottom.” Perhaps Dylan did scavenge some lines from his earlier, forgotten, and newly rediscovered self.
I’ve never … wasted time with an unworthy cause
Recall “Restless Farewell” (1964): “The cause was there before I came.”
Newton Street, Bayview Park….
Most of the street names in this song do show up on Internet searches of Key West street names. Bayview Park is actually on Truman Avenue. The only one I haven’t found is, perhaps unsurprisingly, History Street. President Truman did have a Southern White House in Key West. But he is one of the few Presidents named on this album who was not assassinated.
Twelve years old, they put me in a suit Forced me to marry a prostitute
What?? This is clearly a fiction, which (like “I shot a named Grey” in “Tangled Up In Blue”) is so obviously outrageous that it can only be seen as disrupting and blocking any autobiographical reading. Like the first (McKinley) verse, it comes as a violent disruption of the ideal – which it then attempts to redeem: “we’re still friends”.
So we come to the place where, if you’re going to listen to RRW all the way through, you have to get up from your chair, take out the first CD, fetch the second, put it on, settle back for another 17 minutes. Many people, I suspect, may let it pass, treating RRW as a 9-song CD, ending with “Key West” – which gives that song a special emphasis, as the “last” song on the album, a position usually reserved by Dylan for definitive statements, from “Restless Farewell” to “Desolation Row” to “Dark Eyes” to “Ain’t Talking.” And, of course, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” the only other song to occupy the whole of a single LP side, or a single CD. “Murder Most Foul” is thus both an end and a new beginning.
It was the first song from the album to be released, and it was a bombshell. There had been no advance publicity, not even rumours of its existence. I remember getting up one morning, checking my computer, and starting to play a song logging in (surely a mistake!) at 17 minutes, (Actually a few seconds shorter, but 17 sounded conclusive.) I understand that, technically, it could have fit on a single CD. Setting it apart on a separate disc was a deliberate choice, giving it even greater prominence – which I, as listener, reinforce every time I get up to change the disc.
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